Mar 102010
 

or, If God Has a Wonderful Plan for My Life, Why Am I Suffering?

From my files: September 2008.

My long-time readers know that the best way to get a post out of me is for somebody to ask me a thoughtful question.  That hasn’t happened as much lately as it used to, but the other day, I got a message from one of my new readers. She has run up against one of the deep questions of the Christian life.

According to the Bible, God cares for us and promises to guide our lives in the best way.  “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” as the classic evangelistic booklet puts it.  “He promises to direct us to the best road,” as my friend puts it more poetically.

But if that’s true, my friend asks, why does life have so many difficulties?  Why do many people’s lives seem to have more difficulties after they choose to trust in God and His wonderful plan?  Why does it seem like He doesn’t answer when we pray—especially when we ask Him this question?

Let’s face it:  If God’s “wonderful plan” is for people who believe in Him to be free from suffering, difficulties, and obstacles on the road of life, then He doesn’t do a very good job at it.  Christians suffer just as much as anybody else.  We still have bad days at work. We still have to worry about money. We still get sick and injured.  (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”)  We experience tragedies and natural disasters.  Our loved ones die.  On top of that, we sometimes face persecution, harassment, or even martyrdom just because we believe in Jesus.  That’s not very wonderful.

If you think that sounds too shallow, consider this: I once saw an anti-God website where it was argued that God doesn’t exist because (and they were completely serious) “Christians are no more successful than anybody else when they gamble in Las Vegas.”  Clearly, if we have the wrong idea of what God’s plan is and how He works it out, we’ll come to some very wrong conclusions about Him!

So the question is this: If God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives, then what is that plan, and how wonderful is it really?

Let’s look at the Bible.  A popular Bible verse (maybe you can even quote it from memory) tells us this:

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” –Romans 8:28

That’s a nice thought—everything, even the not-so-good things, work to create good in the end when we trust in God.  But how do we know that’s true?  There’s a hint at the end of the verse: “according to His purpose.” For everything that God allows to happen to us, He has a purpose in mind.  The problem is that too often we just learn this verse by itself, and don’t keep reading to find out what “His purpose” is.   The next verse tells us:

“For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” –Romans 8:29

Let’s look at this carefully: “Whom He foreknew” refers to the people who love God, mentioned in verse 28.  God knew long before you were around that you would choose to believe in Him.  “He also predestined”—that’s a fancy theological word meaning “planned, and what God plans always happens.”  (For those familiar with the theological debate about the doctrine of election: that’s not what Paul is talking about in this verse.)  God knew you were going to commit your life to Him, so He came up with a plan for it, a destiny, a final stop at the end of the road He sets for you.  What is this plan that God predestined for you?  The Bible spells it out in nine simple words:

“To be conformed to the image of His Son.”

God’s wonderful plan for your life is that, when you trust him, you will be changed to look exactly like Jesus.  All the love, all the grace, all the truth, all the kindness, all the wisdom that Jesus had, you will have.  In fact, Jesus can fairly be called “the firstborn among many brethren”—He is the only begotten Son of God, but He now has a lot of younger brothers and sisters by adoption, and there is a strong family resemblance.

If God’s plan is to make our lives look like Jesus’ life, what does that mean for us?  The tremendously encouraging Bible teacher Ron Hutchcraft puts it in these words, which I really can’t improve on:

I have been to the gift shop at those Colonial villages and I’ve seen what the potter can make out of a blob of clay. Every squeeze, every poke, every spin, every cooking is to turn the clay from a blob into a masterpiece. We’re God’s clay. The mold is Jesus. And God designed you to be, through the uniqueness of your own personality and gifts, a replica of His Son.

One of life’s most frequently asked questions is, “Why, God?” The only answer that fits all situations is this—“This can make you more like Jesus than you’ve ever been.” What happens in your life is either something your Father sends or He allows. But in either case, He only allows into your life what can make you more valuable, more Christ-like.

You can’t learn to love like Jesus unless there’s someone in your life who’s hard to love; you can’t learn His sensitivity without hurting; you can’t be Jesus-patient without having to wait, or to put up with someone difficult; you can’t learn joy without circumstances that you have to rise above; you can’t learn peace without some pressure; you can’t learn faith without needs that are bigger than your ability to meet them.

But unlike clay, you choose whether the Potter’s beautiful intentions are realized. If you forget the Potter’s goal, you can become desperate, bitter, hard, self-absorbed. Or you can let Him use it for the ultimate good. If you’re going to get the pain, you might as well get the point! And that’s to make you more like Jesus. The oven and the wheel are God’s tools to transform us blobs of clay into His masterpieces!

The Oven, the Wheel, and the Masterpiece

I’ve seen this in my own life as well. Ironically, the things I’ve liked the least turned out to be the things that helped me become the most like Jesus.  That rotten customer service job was where I learned how to love my neighbor as myself.  That horrible summer when I was alienated from all my Christian friends and coworkers was when I first fully appreciated how much Jesus went through for me.  If I hadn’t gone to that emotionally abusive church, I might not have learned how to pray for the people who despitefully use me.  If I hadn’t been picked on by bullies in grade school, I wouldn’t have had to forgive my enemies.  If I never had to wonder where my next paycheck was coming from, I would never have learned to trust God to provide.  And so on.

I wouldn’t have chosen to experience those things, and I hated them at the time.  Yet looking back, I’m glad that God guided me into them.  At the time, I asked God why He would let such terrible things happen to me if He loved me.  Now, I realize that the answer is He let those things happen because He loved me.

George MacDonald makes a bold statement in one of his novels:

Yet I know that good is coming to me—that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. What we call evil, is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good. (Phantastes, ch. 25)

It’s a bit shocking the way it’s phrased there, but I think he’s on to something.  It’s not that evil is a good thing, but that when God allows evil to happen, He allows it only for a good reason—the best possible reason, in fact.  God causes all things, even evil ones, to work together for good, for the purpose of making you more like His Son.

So God does care, and when you trust Him, God will always direct you down the best road.  Not necessarily the happiest road, the smoothest road, or the easiest road, but the road that will lead you to the best thing: becoming more and more like Jesus every day.

Do you have a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know!

  • Well said! Nothing happens that G-d does not either allow or cause. And yes…it is for our God according to HIS will and purpose…not ours! I, too, have been through many things that were incredibly painful at the time that also caused me to grow closer to Him. He has used a lot of different things to change me in good ways.

  • Good thoughts, Eric. I especially liked this line from Ron Hutchcraft: “This can make you more like Jesus than you’ve ever been.” What a great way to look at any difficulty.

    • Thanks, Meg. I owe a lot to Ron Hutchcraft in many ways.

  • Karen

    Thank you so much for this post. I need to share this. It spoke to me in a way that I haven’t been able to find in years of searching for answers, and it’s all right there in the Bible verses yet somehow I never “got it”. It’s so easy to be bitter, but I never realized that being bitter really is a choice.

    I get that way a lot, I look at other people who had kind, supportive parents and I think why didn’t God give me that? I spend so much of my life being judged because of who my family was and what they did. When I see people who had easier lives I don’t think I’m more Christ-like than them, I feel inferior. I feel I have more problems, more worries, more guilt, more pain in my life. But maybe I’m just looking at this the wrong way. Maybe that pain in itself is Christ-like, the pain that brings me to reliance on His mercy. After all how can anyone have compassion if they don’t truly understand what it’s like to be sick, hungry, abused, etc. Anyway thanks for pointing it out.

    • You’re welcome, Karen! Sounds to me like you’re getting it very well. We sometimes develop a false and poisonous understanding of “The Christian Life” as “Having it all together.” But whoever had more pain and suffering and hardship than Christ Himself did?

      Thanks for commenting!

  • E sher

    thank you. this is just what I was looking for. It is well-put.

    • You’re very welcome, E! I’m glad it was helpful for you. Thanks for commenting.

  • Dane

    Thank you Eric for this wonderful article. My dear wife discovered it on the Internet and shared it with me. I recently lost my job after 26 years of full time Christian service because of some physical problems. I couldn’t understand why after faithful service to Him. I know that God knew this was going to happen long before He created me. Your article is helping me get over this hurdle. “God doesn’t lead us to deep waters to drown us, but to cleanse us and draw us closer to Him”. God bless you!

    • Thanks so much for telling me, Dane; that encouraged me to hear!

      • Dane

        eric… You on FB?

        • Yes. I’m the only one with my name.

          • Dane

            Got it and have “liked” it.

          • Thanks! 🙂

          • Dane

            How long you been a Christian, Eric and where do you now live?

          • I’ve been a Christian since I was a tot, and I’m currently in Greensboro NC.

          • Dane

            My wife and I live in Charlotte and have been here since 2001. I used to be with a large Christian radio network as a Broadcast Engineer until I was, so they say, put to pasture. Apparently the Lord has other plans for me.
            I appreciate your gifted musical ability. As an Audio Engineer I love music. My father was the musician in the family who played the piano and Spanish classical guitar. There are times I wished I had learned to play an instrument, but I guess I’ve learned the technical side of audio such as theory and how to shape sound instead. Take care.